The El Niño Southern Oscillation drives multidirectional inter-reef larval connectivity in the Great Barrier Reef

Sci Rep. 2022 Dec 9;12(1):21290. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-25629-w.


The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the strongest source of interannual global climate variability, and extreme ENSO events are projected to increase in frequency under climate change. Interannual variability in the Coral Sea circulation has been associated with ENSO, although uncertainty remains regarding ENSO's influence on hydrodynamics and larval dispersal in the adjacent Great Barrier Reef (GBR). We investigated larval connectivity during ENSO events from 2010 to 2017 throughout the GBR, based on biophysical modelling of a widespread predatory reef fish, Lutjanus carponotatus. Our results indicate a well-connected system over the study period with high interannual variability in inter-reef connectivity associated with ENSO. Larval connectivity patterns were highly correlated to variations in the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI). During El Niño conditions and periods of weak SOI, larval dispersal patterns were predominantly poleward in the central and southern regions, reversing to a predominant equatorward flow during very strong SOI and extreme La Niña conditions. These ENSO-linked connectivity patterns were associated with positive connectivity anomalies among reefs. Our findings identify ENSO as an important source of variation in larval dispersal and connectivity patterns in the GBR, which can influence the stability of population dynamics and patterns of biodiversity in the region.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anthozoa*
  • Climate Change
  • El Nino-Southern Oscillation*
  • Larva
  • Population Dynamics